What does it mean for wives to submit to their husbands?

Ephesians 5:22-24 says:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

These verses often chafe modern readers. The passage brings to mind passivity, powerlessness, and a mindless obedience to someone who may not have the integrity to deserve it. The Greek word used for submit in the verses is hupotasso, which means to voluntarily submit to, to yield to another's advice, to place one's power under the authority of another.

The passage in Ephesians goes on to give other marital advice to complete the picture.

Verse 25-27: Husbands are to so love and sacrifice themselves for their wives that the wife can remain "blameless"—that is, he should make sure he never puts her in a position where she has to risk her integrity.

Verses 28-31: Husbands should remember that in marriage, the two became one. Everything the husband does reflects on his wife. Every disgrace he subjects her to stains him. Every time he makes her life difficult, he makes his own difficult. But every time he respects and builds up his wife, his own dignity shines.

Verse 33: Husbands are to show agape to their wives—that hard, sacrificial love that puts another's needs above one's own. At the same time, wives are to phobeo their husbands—to treat with deference or reverential obedience.

If the verses about wives submitting to their husbands sound unfair or discriminatory, it is because we have been taught them in the wrong context. First, they do not refer to male/female relationships beyond husband and wife. But they aren't even about a happy peaceful family life. They are words of war given to a unified military unit.

Hupotasso, translated "submit" or "be subject to," was used in a military context in reference to arranging military troops under the command of a leader. Of course, the purpose of that is to designate responsibilities so the mission of the unit can be accomplished. God is laying out His organizational structure for the protection and effectiveness of His military units going to war (Ephesians 6:12).

Another misunderstood passage emphasizes this; the ezer of Genesis 2:18, downgraded to "helper" or "helpmeet" in English translations. Ezer more accurately refers to help in a desperate time of need. It comes from two different roots, one referring to rescue and the other to strength. Ezer is also used in the Old Testament to refer to God's help. We might compare this to a warrior perfectly designed to help and rescue another. It is the air support to the ground troops. Air forces are not typically ordered by command to take and hold enemy ground—boots on the ground are. The air support can run reconnaissance, give intelligence and advice, and provide clarity to the situation. The ground forces determine the battle objective, hold the territory, and tell the planes where to strike. They also understand the limitations of the aircraft. Weather, fuel limitations, and surface to air missiles can demolish an air squadron just as circumstances, energy depletion, and spiritual warfare can diminish a wife's effectiveness to help and protect her mate. Likewise, when the battle is particularly fierce or prolonged, the air support drops supplies and, if necessary, rescues the wounded. But if the air forces do not submit to the ground troops' commands, at best the air strike will be ineffective and, at worst, the planes will bomb those they were supposed to protect.

To apply the metaphor, we begin at the top—Jesus as commander. He is responsible for waging the spiritual battle around us. We start, always, by submitting our power to His authority so He can use us in the most effective way.

In the family unit, the "boots on the ground" is supposed to be the husband. Jesus has charged him to care for a family that works as a unit in the spiritual war. The wife, so close to her husband that they act as one fierce organism working toward a single goal, submits her own power to her husband's authority. If she takes her support away from him—support designed to protect and supply the entire unit—he will probably not survive, and it will be very unlikely the family unit will reach the goals Jesus prepared for them (Ephesians 2:10). At the same time, the husband needs to allow his wife to use her strengths, including her unique perspective and abilities, while keeping in mind her limitations so that she won't be drained to ineffectiveness in the process (1 Peter 3:7).

The metaphor breaks down in the practice of "skipping the chain of command." In the military, it is bad manners to go over the head of one's commander to bring a complaint to his supervisor. In married life, it's required. We are all to have our own personal relationships with God. As Sapphira learned in Acts 5, women are responsible for their own obedience to God, and cannot use the excuse that their husband told them to sin. The most effective way anyone can support their spouse is to pray.

If a couple has come to the conclusion that for wives to "submit" means the husband makes all the decisions and the wife makes all the meals, they have a very skewed view of the world in which we live. In the movie We Were Soldiers Once, Lt. Col. Hal Moore explains, "You know what Air Cavalry really means? You fly into hostile territory, outnumbered, 10,000 miles from home. Sometimes the battleground is no bigger than a football field, and if the choppers stop coming, we all get slaughtered." We tie the hands of wives when we describe them as merely virtuous or excellent. Proverbs 31:10 describes the ideal wife as valiant; a strong, heroic warrior. Such power working independently of the man she is supposed to be united with is destructive to the relationship, the family, and the church. But such power voluntarily submitted to the leader God has placed over her is destructive to the plans of the enemy.

Related Truth:

Is God/the Bible sexist?

What does the Bible teach about marriage?

In marriage how do the two become one flesh?

What should a Christian mother be like according to the Bible?

What are to be our top priorities in our family life?

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